A reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 by Jacqueline Schmitt
Okay. So I’m a little late with this entry this week. Pray for me, sisters, there is a lot going on.
I found it funny that Terri would assign Last Epiphany to me, since it is one of my least favorite texts for preaching! Not that I dislike it, but every year, the same story, and sometimes in the summer, too! How much can one say? I’ve done all the clichés, like “standing on the mountain peering down into the valley of Lent” and the symbolism of the booths as small-minded fears of timid Christians who feel the need to box in the Spirit. I think I feel this way because this is a powerful and strange text, so out of the ordinary from the Jesus who walks with us and talks with us. The irony of the blast of the nuclear bomb over Hiroshima coming on the same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration is never lost on me. Terrible glory, terrible horror: how do we hold those two opposing events together in our hearts?
Here’s the other thread running through my head of late: sometimes I wonder if the ordination of women has made any difference at all. Yes, yes, we have an admirable woman as Presiding Bishop, and three of the senior members of her staff are women, and we are very proud of that.
Yes. All true.
But equally true are the shocking statistics of how poorly women clergy are compensated. Did you read that book from the Church Pension Fund? At least $10,000 less at every level of experience, parish size, responsibility. This is not a second career for me, nor do I have a trust fund to fall back on. This is it. As a friend of mine observed several years ago, these guys get ordained, from another career, and they leap-frog right over us, get paid more because they have a family to support. Apparently, this is not yesterday’s news.
Another thing happened in my parish that brought this train of thought right into the home station. I was getting comments about my hair, from older women parishioners. How I really should get my hair cut, how nice it used to look, and then when I did, oh, how nice you look now, blah blah blah. It took me back to my first Sunday in my first church a week after I was ordained, when I wore the wrong shoes. My husband came to coffee hour, and was part of one of these conversations, and noted, when I was ranting about this later at home, “I had no idea that still went on for you. I used to get this when I was a young cleric, but no one has ever questioned my authority like that.”
Stuff like this takes its toll. I’m grateful to be closer to retirement than to that first day of ordained ministry, and I’m grateful that the Pension Fund will treat me well, and that I, unlike many other underpaid women in the work force, will get a pension.
So why do people in the pews focus on the priest’s haircut? I think it has to do with church architecture, which will bring me back to the story of the Transfiguration and why I ask for your prayers.
My church has a marble altar stuck to the wall, and the parishioners prefer – love! –an eastward-facing celebration. The bishop’s telling them they had to move it only made them love it even more, and for the past two years I’ve done it: trotted out my distant memories of Mass Class at General Seminary, dusted off elevations and tricky turns on narrow steps, climbed the heights of the pulpit, all that.
Not only the words we pray, but the way we pray, and where we pray form us in our faith. This kind of church architecture forms people into passive sheep, an audience – not the laos, the people of God, participating in the leadership of their own community, full members of the body of Christ and the household of God. Members of such congregations occasionally rise up as snipers, taking aim at things which are out of place, such as the priest’s hair, or talk of lay leadership, or mission, or the possibility that the reason that no one new comes to this church anymore is that there is no room for newcomers in the empty pews.
“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”
Peter, James and John had seen the big stuff, and it was dazzling and terrifying and all they could do was try to protect themselves by falling to the ground. The ordination of women, or liturgical renewal, or renovations in church architecture are trivial in comparison with the vision of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But they – the recent changes in our church -- are, we have all believed, signs pointing the way to the inbreaking of the realm of God – ways to organize our human lives so that we can begin to act and live and pray and breathe the way God would have us be.
We had a visit from the Holy Spirit this winter, when the heating pipes burst and we were forced to worship in a small chapel, with a free-standing altar and chairs arranged in rows, like a choir, facing each other. It’s warm, but uncomfortably intimate.
So pray for me, sisters, and for my congregation, on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, when I tell them that when we move back into the church for Palm Sunday, the pews will be moved, the altar will be in the midst of the people, and God will be frighteningly dislodged from the liturgical east. Pray that I may find the words of Jesus to say, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”